Standing up to be counted in Dickensian election voting

Brinkburn Priory in 1832 before restoration.
Brinkburn Priory in 1832 before restoration.

Until 1872, voting was conducted in public. The lists were open to scrutiny, and sometimes printed and published.

The best description of an old-time election is that given by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers, between the Blues and the Buffs at Eatanswill.

Underneath the humour, Dickens is icily accurate. Every incident can be matched with similar ones in real elections.

Mr Pickwick is invited to Eatanswill by Mr Perker, the lawyer acting for the Blue candidate, the Hon. Samuel Slumkey:

“...so it’s a spirited contest?”

‘”Oh yes,” said the little man, “very much so indeed. We have opened all the public houses in the place, and left our adversary nothing but the beer-shops — masterly stroke of policy that, my dear Sir, eh? (and) We had a little tea-party here, last night — five-and-forty women, my dear Sir — and gave every one of ’em a green parasol when she went away....Secured all their husbands, and half their brothers — beats stockings, and flannel, and all that sort of thing hollow.”

The Eatanswill Gazette supported the Blues, and the Eatanswill Independent the Buffs. Mr Pickwick stayed with Mr Pott, editor of the Gazette. Next day being the hustings, they went to the Slumkey headquarters at the Town Arms:

“The stable yard exhibited unequivocal symptoms of the glory and strength of the Eatanswill Blues....There was a grand band of trumpets, bassoons and drums, marshalled four abreast, and earning their money, if ever men did....There were bodies of constables with blue staves, twenty committee-men with blue scarfs, and a mob of voters with blue cockades. There were electors on horseback and electors afoot. There was an open carriage and four for the honourable Samuel Slumkey; and there were four carriages and pair, for his friends and supporters.

“Amidst the cheers of the assembled throng, the band, and the constables, and the committee-men, and the voters, and the horsemen, and the carriages, took their places — each of the two-horse vehicles being closely packed with as many gentlemen as could manage to stand upright in it.”

Slumkey’s procession got mixed up with the other candidate’s. Mr Pickwick had his hat knocked over his face, but eventually: “felt himself forced up some wooden steps by the persons from behind: and on removing his hat, found himself surrounded by his friends, in the very front of the left hand side of the hustings. The right was reserved for the Buff party; and the centre for the mayor and his officers.”

The candidates “were bowing with the utmost affability to the troubled sea of heads that inundated the open space in front; and from whence arose a storm of groans, and shouts, and yells, and hootings, that would have done honour to an earthquake.”

Speeches followed from the mayor, proposers and seconders, all drowned out by the noise:

“After the friends of each party had quarrelled in pairs for three-quarters of an hour, Horatio Fizkin, Esquire, touched his hat to the honourable Samuel Slumkey...the band was stopped, the crowd were partially quieted, and Horatio Fizkin, Esquire, was permitted to proceed.”

After the speeches, the mayor declared Slumkey elected on a show of hands. Fizkin demanded a poll:

“During the whole time of polling....Everything was conducted on the most liberal and delightful scale. Excisable articles were remarkably cheap at all the public houses; and spring vans (for) voters who were seized with any temporary dizziness in the head.

“A small body of electors...had not yet been convinced by the arguments of either party, although they had had frequent conferences with each. One hour before the close of the poll, Mr Perker solicited the honour of a private interview with these intelligent, these noble, these patriotic men. It was granted. His arguments were brief but satisfactory. They went in a body to the poll; and when they returned, the honourable Samuel Slumkey was returned also.”

When an election was called, agents canvassed the electors for their votes. Or, if the elector was in a position of dependency, indicated how he should vote.

Nominations took place on a hustings, a platform erected in the main public place of the borough or, if it was for the county, of the head polling place.

The hustings at Eatanswill are covered, and the town crier, in front, is trying to restore order for the mayor to speak.

The returning officer was always the mayor. Morpeth, however, had no mayor until 1836 so before that it was the senior bailiff.

If there was no contest, the member was elected by acclamation. If not, the mayor took a count of heads. The loser could either accept the decision or demand a poll, the cost of which was borne by the candidates.

In February 1840, Major Hodgson Cadogan, of Brinkburn Priory, stood for the Conservatives against Captain Howard, son of the Earl of Carlisle. Morpeth had only one seat after the Reform Act, but the freemen’s Parliamentary vote was retained. By a long-standing practice, the Earl of Carlisle’s agent let them fields and whole farms at very moderate rents, thus guaranteeing their support for the Earl’s preferred candidate.

Although the ten-pound householders had the vote, and the Parliamentary Borough included Bedlingtonshire, there were still only about 350 electors so influence and bribery were still perfectly effective. Each side aired the other’s dirty washing. The proposer of Captain Howard said that the electors had been influenced “by the country squires (who) had gone deliberately round to their tradesmen, and said to them, ‘You have had many a favour from me, and I now request one from you’.”

The proposer of Major Cadogan deplored Lord Carlisle’s influence in Morpeth, and especially over the freemen “who for a number of years had been bound to support certain members contrary to their wishes.”

Having spoken himself, Cadogan withdrew because the Liberals had canvassed earlier and cornered all the votes, even in Bedlington.

At a Conservative dinner in Morpeth that September, one of the speakers asked: “Who would now hesitate to act and vote according to his known political principles, from the fear of losing some paltry pennyworth by which his independence was held in bondage? ... their (the Howard family’s) influence was not the legitimate and natural influence acquired by personal intercourse between landlord and tenant, but by the abstract power of property.”

But at the same time, Major Cadogan delicately bore out the truth of the Liberal jibe about the squires going round the tradesmen when he responded to the toast to Mrs Cadogan.She took, he said, a deep interest in his success, and what gave her the most satisfaction was that “his success should be so great, seeing that he had no property in the Borough, and possessed no direct influence over the Election.”

And he concluded: “No one appreciated more highly than she did the honest and unbought support of his friends; and no one was so anxious to testify her grateful acknowledgments for such disinterested kindness.”